Many clients first come to me hoping to learn the rules… they want to know what to eat, what not to eat, when they’re allowed to eat, etc. to help them improve their health and lose weight. I hear things like “I’m really good at following directions”, “I just need a plan”, “I need someone to tell me what to eat”. Here's the problem... solely knowing what to do rarely changes anything.
“It doesn’t matter what you know. It’s execution that matters.”
– Andy Grove
We are in no shortage of information in today’s world and if all we needed was a list of foods to eat in order to turn our health around, then we would have done that by now. Take a trip to your local bookstore and browse the “health and nutrition” section. You’ll find rows and rows of books that all have their own list of foods. We have easy access to loads of information that you don’t necessarily need to hire a coach to learn which foods are healthy for us. As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, it’s more complex and there are more pieces to the puzzle.
Want to know why you struggle to sustain healthy eating habits? Because you’re making decisions based on somebody else’s rules. These food rules could have been planted in your subconscious as early as childhood and could have come from a combination of diet books, magazines, TV commercials, social media, or your friends and family. Here are some examples of what a food rule could look like:
Sugar is bad for you, you should never eat sugar
You shouldn’t eat after 8:00 PM
Bread makes you fat, you should never eat bread
Carbs are bad, you should avoid all carbs
Bananas have carbs and you should never eat them because carbs are bad
Fat is bad, you should only eat fat-free foods
Almonds have fat and you should never eat them because fat is bad
Calories are bad, and you should only eat low-calorie foods
When we hear these types of things from people of authority, people we look up to, people we trust we tend to immediately accept them to be true without challenging them, or exploring how they work for us personally. And if you ever feel guilty after eating certain foods, it’s because you feel like you’re doing something wrong… you’re breaking the rules.
So, what’s the problem with making decisions based on somebody else’s rules anyways? Well, we make many food decisions every single day (some reports have documented that we make over 200 food decisions per day), and if your internal dialogue is battling out what you want to eat vs. what you should eat over 200 times per day that can become exhausting! This, in and of itself is why relying on your willpower to eat healthy generally fails. Our willpower is drained by lunch! But, here’s the real issue… when we feel obligated to eat a certain way, like these food rules are being imposed on us against our free will, resentment begins to develop. When you feel disempowered every time you eat, choosing foods out of duty, you eventually associate eating healthy as a chore. And as humans, we desire independence and work hard to protect our autonomy. This is when a little food rebel starts to brew within us like and like a rebellious teen sneaking out of the house past curfew, we start to rebel against the food rules that are being forced upon us. Simply saying to yourself “I can’t have that” or “I shouldn’t eat that” is enough to make it feel like it isn’t a choice, undermining your sense of personal freedom, leading you down the dangerous path of self-destructive behaviors - eating all of the things (donuts, cookies, fries, chips, ice cream, you name it).
I have personally struggled with this myself, especially when I started studying to be a dietitian. I began to feel pressure to eat a certain way in front of others to uphold the image of what I thought a dietitian “should” look like. This ultimately led to me binging on pizza and ice cream when no one was around.
If you haven’t read it already, I invite you to check out this blog post: How I Discovered Balance with My Eating.
The Solution? Working to develop your self-awareness, listening to your intuition, and exploring which foods you actually enjoy eating because they satisfy you and make you feel good. When your food choices are viewed as an actual choice, a sense of well-being and empowerment begins to take place that increases internal motivation. Learning what is right for YOU is a process that takes time. It requires slowing down and paying attention to your eating behaviors. I honestly believe that most of us lack the ability to feed ourselves in order to feel our personal best. It’s not our fault though! We have relied on others to tell us what to eat our entire life causing us to miss out on developing the necessary skills to do so. Even though you may be well into adulthood, you may need to relearn how to eat. Healthy looks different on everyone, and so we must set out on the journey to discover what that looks and feels life for ourselves.
In order to start the process of learning what is right for YOU, here are some prompt questions to help increase your self-awareness:
How does this food make me feel?
Which foods make me feel good? (energized, light, vibrant, happy)
Which foods make me feel bad? (tired, moody, fuzzy, sluggish, bloated)
How satisfying is this food?
Do I enjoy how this food tastes?
Am I still hungry after I finish eating?
Do I feel uncomfortably full?
Do I feel deprived?
Am I enjoying the experience of this meal?
One of my clients had this habit of stopping by the drive thru for french fries on her way home after a stressful day at work. For her, it was a way of treating herself after the unpleasantness of her day. We had been discussing this whole concept of rediscovering her likes and dislikes, as well as paying close attention to how certain foods make her feel. One day she came to my office and was telling me about her most recent trip to the drive thru. Nothing was out of the ordinary, she stopped after work to order her usual fries, but then something strange happened… the fries didn’t taste as good as she had hoped they would. They weren’t as satisfying as she had remembered, wasn’t enjoying the texture or the flavor, and they were a little cold. Instead of finishing them like she always had done in the past, she THREW THEM AWAY! Before, she had always told herself that she shouldn’t have fries because they are bad, so she used an undesirable experience (a stressful day) to allow herself to eat the fries in attempt to feel better. And she used to always eat the entire thing without even noticing if she was actually enjoying them. Just the act of eating them was exciting and felt liberating! She had been thinking about how long it had been since she last had fries, and the anticipation had been building about how good they would taste. Why does being “bad” feel so good?!
Another client of mine always felt tortured by treats brought in to work by her co-workers. The break room is constantly filled with donuts, pastries, muffins, and cookies… what’s a girl to do?! Every morning she would get to work and tell herself that she shouldn’t have a donut because donuts are bad. But, what happens when you tell a little kid not to touch something? Now all they can think about is how much they want to touch it!!!
Inevitably the temptation would become too overwhelming and she would eat not one, but two donuts. When I asked her if she liked the donuts that were brought into work, it took her a second to think about it and she came to realize that she didn’t even like them! She gradually started to pay attention to the different treats that were being brought in, she allowed herself to try them and ask herself if it even tasted good to her. If after one or two bites it wasn’t satisfying she would stop and throw it away. But if it was something she truly enjoyed and it tasted UH-MAZING, she would enjoy the heck out of it and move on with her day. She no longer spends her entire day obsessively thinking about the donuts followed by compulsively overindulging.
Once you begin to eliminate all of the shoulds, ought-to’s, musts, supposed-to’s, need-to’s, and have-to’s it takes the pressure off of constantly trying to live up to a set of unrealistic expectations. You can finally exhale a big sigh of relief, because now YOU are calling the shots. And when you make decisions from a place of self-care, knowing what you need to truly feel nourished, and feeling in control around food… that’s when the magic happens. Because when you enjoy the food you’re eating, and your mind and body feel amazing, you want that to last. Eating foods that you want to eat feels more empowering, don’t you think? And when we feel empowered by our choices we in turn feel motivated to repeat those choices. That is how you break the vicious cycle of yo-yo dieting, and create healthy eating habits that last.
Have you created an unattainable standard for yourself when it comes to food? Next time you feel like you have failed, ask yourself what rule you feel you’ve broken. This exercise can help you gain some perspective on your thoughts and beliefs around food and your eating habits.